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Cervantes on knight-errantry

In ``Don Quixote'' (1605), often called the first modern novel, Miguel de Cervantes had fun with the chivalric romances that preceded it. Critic Mark Van Doren noted that the title character, by acting ``as if'' he were a knight, became the most famous knight in history. But what did he mean by knight? Here Don Quixote explains, in Samuel Putnam's translation from the Spanish (copyright 1949 by Viking Penguin, New York).

``Look, my friend,'' said Don Quixote, ``not all knights can be courtiers, nor can all courtiers be, nor should they be, knights-errant. There have to be all kinds in this world, and even though we may all be knights, there is a great deal of difference between us. For the courtiers, without leaving their rooms or the threshold of the court, may travel all over the earth merely by looking at a map; it does not cost them anything and they do not suffer heat or cold, hunger or thirst. But those of us who are real knights-errant, we take the measure of the entire globe with our feet, beneath the sun of day and in the cold of night, out in the open and exposed to all the inclemencies of the weather. We know our enemies not from pictures but as they really are, and we attack them on every occasion and under no matter what conditions of combat. We pay no attention to the childish rules that are supposed to govern knightly duels; we are not concerned as to whether one has a longer lance or sword than the other or may carry upon him holy relics or some secret contrivance; we do not worry about the proper placing of the combatants with regard to the sun nor any of the other ceremonious usages of this sort that commonly prevail in man-to-man encounters, with which you are unfamiliar but which I know well.

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``And let me tell you something else. The good knight-errant, even though he may behold ten giants with heads that not merely touch but rise above the clouds; and even though each of these giants may have two tallest towers for legs while his arms resemble the masts of huge and powerful ships; even though each may have eyes that are like great mill wheels and that glow more brightly than any glass furnace -- in spite of all this, he is not to be in the least frightened but with highborn mien and intrepid heart is to give them battle and if possible vanquish and destroy them in a moment's time. And this, though they bear armor made of the shells of a certain fish that are said to be harder than diamonds, and in place of swords carry keen-edged blades of Damascus steel or clubs studded with spikes of the same material such as I have more than once seen. I tell you all this, my good woman, in order that you may perceive what a difference there is between knights; and it would be well if there were no prince who did not more esteem this second, or, rather, first variety of knight-errant.''

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